Style and social class: Love me, don't love me

Style and social class: Love me, don’t love me



Alicia Powell WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

The fashion industry is forgetful: what was once considered old-fashioned and unrefined ends up being repackaged as the latest trend. The signifiers of working-class style—forms of excessive consumption once deemed vulgar and indiscriminate—find a new home in the closets of the wealthy. The so-called “chav” uniform derided by characters like Vicky Pollard comes down to one rule: the more brands, the better. Sound familiar? Stone Island, Nike, Lacoste, Fred Perry, Ralph Lauren, Adidas. All of these brands exist at the center of hypebeast culture. Once visual signifiers of poverty, these styles have been repurposed into high fashion streetwear.

“What is that in and what out is and always will be dictated by the workings of haute couture”

There may be a tendency to be proud of this resurgence of working-class style; that despite the changes in our social fabric since the declines of industry, the working class has established its own valid identity free from the establishment. However, I encourage you to ask yourself: how did it come to this? The answer – in the same way that everything happens anywhere in the trickle-down mode system we are subject to – comes from the top. As Meryl Streep illustrated through her cerulean jumper monologue in The devil wears Pradait’s “kinda comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room out of a bunch stuff”.

While what we see in these new trends is just a simple appropriation of working-class originals, which is in and what out is and always will be dictated by the workings of high fashion. The ultimate mission of these fashion houses is to maintain their exclusivity and inaccessibility.

The now infamous paparazzi photo of Danniella Westbrook wearing a Burberry skirt and Burberry bag, while lifting a child fully kitted out in Burberry from a Burberry buggy was printed by The sun next to the caption “chavtastic”. From there, the luxury goods house developed an instant association with knockoffs and counterfeits of their recognizable luxury and witnessed a rapid decline in sales. Westbrook’s iconic subversion of the brand’s heritage print had confirmed the moral panic surrounding ‘chav’, with even pubs and clubs beginning to ban the brand from their establishments. Burberry executives raced to change public perceptions of the brand. The first move by Christopher Bailey, appointed creative director in 2004, was to abandon the signature nova check print, distancing the brand from the working class and repairing Burberry’s reputation. In 2005, the print appeared on less than 5% of the brand’s products, and production of its plaid caps was stopped altogether.

“Haute couture brands continue to invent new methods of exploitation to repackage us and resell our crops to us”

Therefore, watching the upper classes catch up shouldn’t be a bitter experience. It should be empowering but, due to the persistent efforts of fashion elites to escape working-class aesthetics, it is not. It’s a simple impersonation. This shift in attitude, from distrust and mockery to fetishization and lust, reeks of hypocrisy and reaches offensive heights of appropriation.

In 2014, after thirteen years at Burberry and ten years as creative director, Christopher Bailey decided to revive the Burberry nova check print by marketing it as young, fresh and desirable. The height of this reappropriation comes in his penultimate collection as creative director, in the FW17 show which highlights the brand’s heritage by bringing back to the catwalks the tartan print which gave birth to the perception “chav” from Burberry. Streetwear reunites with its ex-lover in March 2022 through the Supreme®/Burberry® collaboration, a collection that offered classic plaid fashionable outerwear as its selling point. If the gap between top and bottom continues to widen, the appropriation of working-class aesthetics will persist. This gap is maintained by brands like Supreme, where the price point keeps these proper items out of the reach of the poor.

The axis has rotated, as it seems to do from time to time, and those who were previously at the bottom now find copies of themselves at the top. The working class, however, remains down where we have always been, thanks to the configuration of oppression and marginalization carried out by those who steal our image from us. It is far from inclusive. It is far from being a celebration or a tribute. It is simply another form of oppression, a subconscious and hollow attempt to dilute a way of life. High fashion brands continue to invent new methods of exploitation to repackage us and resell our cultures to us, never engaging in conversations with those for whom it is a lived experience.

The mainstreaming of streetwear may have loosened some class biases, but the system itself remains solid. The image of the working class exists in a precarious balance, grating unsteadily in the face of the UK’s turbulent relationship with its own class realities.



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